Thursday, October 30, 2014

Enchantress - James Maxwell (Evermen Saga #1)

Enchantress (Evermen Saga, #1)
Enchantress is one of those books that I feel had awesome potential but didn't quite live up to it.  It took a long time for me to get into the story; I found the writing fairly juvenile, the characters flat, and the comma use fairly abysmal, considering that this is supposed to be a professionally-published book.  (Though 47North is an Amazon imprint, so I'm skeptical of how much work they actually put into the books they publish.)  I'm glad I soldiered through, because there was a great story lurking in the background involving a pair of siblings, one who wants to be an enchantress and one who wants to be a bladesinger, and the conflict in which they find themselves embroiled, but ultimately Maxwell just kept doing things that would jar me out of the tale and leave me going, "Wait, what?"  Here are some examples:

-Ella makes a terrible, foolish decision that has terrible results, and yet she is only nominally punished for it; she isn't expelled from the enchanters' school, all of classmates and teachers continue to adore her, and she gets the school's most prestigious award despite her actions.

-Maxwell alternates between info-dumping on things that aren't really interesting, like politics, and not fleshing out aspects of the story which would be interesting, like the Dunfolk, the different types of magic, etc.

-Characters appear out of nowhere, and we are expected to develop emotional connections to them on the basis of two or three pages, before they vanish, are killed off, or otherwise exit stage right and are never seen again.  Other characters' loyalties and motivations seem to switch between different factions and emotions with little rhyme or reason behind the changes.

-There seems to be some discrepancy with the internal "rating" of this book.  For example, Maxwell includes a fairly detailed sexual encounter early in the book, as well as a near-rape scene and some gruesome battles, but the "wrack" (which should probably be "rack") punishment/torture session is self-censored, which seemed odd when it could have greatly helped the development of Ella's character.  As it was, she came off seeming completely unaffected by that incident, and it did nothing to mature her as a person.

-Maxwell dabbled with elements of a lot of books I liked; a city of bridges, like in Bitterblue, a magical academy much like in Harry Potter, A College of Magics, or The Name of the Wind, an imposing empire poised to take away the freedom of other territories similar to The Ropemaker, and fantasy desert tribes like The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, but never really tied these together into what felt like a rich, cohesive whole, and instead spent too much time jumping between elements, trying to cram in too many plotlines that were never fully developed or explored.

-Armor and swords that requires constant singing to make them useful doesn't actually seem very useful at all, especially when this "needs to be sung about to work" quality isn't used consistently.

-The story strongly relies on the concept of different "houses" that practice different types of magic, but all of the types actually feel the same, with no clear distinctions made between them.  Essence, the source of magic, can't be used on living things, only inanimate objects, so there doesn't seem to be a reason that one group of people can enchant a wall and another group can enchant a shield, but they can't switch objects.  Additionally, despite it being repeatedly hammered on that essence can't be used on (most) living things without horrible consequences, one house can apparently make trees come to life, move around, and even fight battles without said consequences making an appearance.

-A better place to break the book would have been when Ella joined up with the desert clans and Miro fought his big battle; after these points, the book had a much different feel to it that would have suited the beginning of a second book more than the ending of a first one.

I might pick up The Hidden Relic, the second book in this series, but I'm not sure quite yet.  If I do, I hope to find that Maxwell's writing has matured some and the flaws that were so jarring in Enchantress are lessened or eliminated in The Hidden Relic.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Replacement - Rachael Wade (Replacement #1)

The ReplacementHmmm....  This one was a weird one for me.  I ended up liking it much more than I thought I would for a while, but I still have some reservations about it.  The Replacement is about Elise Duchamp, a 23-year-old waitress in Gig Harbor, Washington, who is also known as the town whore.  She sleeps with pretty much every guy in town, available or not, and she doesn't regret it.  She thrives off of it.  Until, of course, that one special someone comes along.  She doesn't want to change her ways, particularly, and she tries to drive him away because she doesn't think she's good enough for him and blah blah blah.

It's complicated.

I liked Elise and I hated her in turns.  And, the more I think about it, the more that I don't think she should have gotten the guy in the end.  Let me tell you, Ryder was hot.  He was awesome.  I loved Ryder.  But Elise shouldn't have gotten him.  Mainly because she didn't deserve him.  She was cruel to him, purposefully and ruthlessly cruel, and while she went out and had a whole big epiphany/self discovery period and then came back to him, I don't thinks he should have ended up with him.  I think Ryder deserved better than Elise, and that Elise should have had her big self discovery and then moved on and maybe ended up with someone else who isn't in the book at all.  Maybe someone else in another town, because I have a hard time thinking she'd ever be able to really live in Gig Harbor after everything she did.

I really liked the writing.  I thought it had a great flow, and Wade made Elise, a girl who is not really all...a likeable narrator.  I thought I'd hate her for the duration of the book, but I didn't.  There were times I hated her, but it wasn't a constant stream of hate.  And there were parts of her that I could definitely empathize with, too.  Not the sleeping with other people's husbands/boyfriends and getting off on that, but things like her dream of going to Paris, and her complete awareness of what an awful person she is, because the first step to changing is acknowledging that there's a problem.  There were sweet aspects to her that went a long way towards mellowing out her other, less savory qualities.  There was, I will admit, a lot of sex in this book, which I guess is to be expected from a book about a self-proclaimed whore.  It varied in quality, but overall it was good.

One complaint I do have is that Wade made almost every man in the universe look like a cheating bastard in this book.  There were a total of two who weren't.  Now, are there cheating bastards in the world?  Yes.  But I refuse to believe they are as plentiful as they apparently are in Gig Harbor.  Geeze, ladies of Gig Harbor, y'all need to move somewhere else, because apparently there is something in the water there that makes guys insensitive, cheating bastards.  I really would have rather seen Elise engage in a handful of more noteworthy affairs than a whole slew of non-noteworthy ones, because I would have found it more believable.  Also...I'm not really sure where her issues came from?  Because she says she has "daddy issues," and she clearly does, but from the way her father treats her in the book it seems like they would have manifested very differently from what they were, like maybe always trying to please men instead of herself?  I don't know.  It was kind of off, but not book-ruining for me, and overall I still liked this one.

A solid 3 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Gentleman's Honor - Stephanie Laurens (Bastion Club #2)

A Gentleman's Honor (Bastion Club, #2)A Gentleman's Honor is the second book in Laurens' "Bastion Club" series, about a group of noblemen during the Regency period who are prime targets on the ton marriage mart and yet are determined to pick their own wives instead of having young women foisted upon them by interfering mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, etc.  I read the first book in the series, too, and after finishing this one, I've come to a realization: Laurens doesn't have much variation in her characters.  It's a lot of hot, possessive guys and a lot of girls who like to think they're independent but becoming melting messes the second they lay eyes on their love interests.

That said, the book wasn't bad.  Actually, I found it more interesting than the first one in the series, and I got through it a good deal quicker, too, but that was mostly because it had a more interesting plot than the first book.  That's another thing about these books.  They have plots.  I would like to call them subplots, because the main plot should be the romance,'s kind of not?  I mean, there's lots of kissing and sex and all of that good stuff (so much, in this book, that I actually kind of got bored of it...apparently there's a delicate balance for these things in my mind) but there's a plot that goes through it all of Anthony, the main male character, trying to catch someone who has committed treason, and Alicia really ends up on his radar because the traitor is trying to use her as a scapegoat.  And meanwhile, Alicia is hiding her own background in the hopes that she'll be able to successfully marry off her younger sister, Adriana.  The "catch the traitor" plot in this one was more interesting than the "catch the creepy guy" plot in the first one, but given the repetitiveness of the characters between the first book and this, I doubt the others in the series will be much different, and I probably won't be reading onward.

3 out of 5 stars, but not a memorable 3, if that makes any sense.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The American Bride - Karla Darcy (Sweet Deception Regency #6)

The American Bride (Sweet Deception Regency #6)I have been struggling to find a historical romance author who can compete with Lisa Kleypas and Julia Quinn for my affections.  So far, the search hasn't yielded fruit, and Karia Darcy's The American Bride gets to join the pile of discarded hopes and dreams.  As far as historical romances go, this one was just bland.  The writing was stiff, very tell-y, and the witty banter that usually makes historical romance novels a fun read was pretty much entirely lacking.  The love interest, Julian, was stiff, cold, and uncaring, and honestly I can't see how Cara fell in love with a total asshole like him.  He does soften up--but only after Cara is in love with him, and he returns to being a complete ass to her not too long after.  Also, I'm not sure how Cara and her grandmother decided on such a hare-brained scheme to get Cara acquainted with Julian, anyway.  This probably would have been a more interesting story if Cara had just showed up as Julian's arranged bride and the two had been forced to work things out.

Additionally, there was some...weird stuff going on in this one.  It's repeatedly stated that Julian's father arranged the marriage, and yet his father appears to have been dead for some time, so I can only assume the marriage was arranged from beyond the grave.  And as for the relationship...well, on Cara's end, it doesn't make sense, as mentioned above.  On Julian's end, it's just creepy.  He apparently views Cara as a child with boobs, given the numerous times he refers to her as a child, girl, etc. both in and out of dialogue.  However, he apparently has no qualms about entering a physical relationship with her and perhaps even keeping her as a mistress.  All together, that's just creepy.  Cara's interactions with her charges, Richard and Belin, were amusing, but I'm forced to think that she was a completely awful governess.  I mean, yeah, she helped the kids come out of their shells, but it's not a governess' job to play Indians in the woods or give swimming lessons.  Lessons of the type a governess should have been giving (and ones Cara insisted she was more than qualified to give) were completely lacking.  And with the way she acted, Julian should have booted her off the estate within a matter of days.

Overall, this one just didn't make any sense to me, and with the awkward, stiff writing (filled with an abundance of misplaced commas) it was just dull and finishing it felt more like a chore than a treat.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Septembers of Shiraz - Dalia Sofer

The Septembers of ShirazThe Septembers of Shiraz actually has nothing to do with Septembers in Shiraz, so don't pick it up if you're hoping Shiraz will be a prominent feature.  It's not.  In fact, the book is split pretty much entirely between Tehran in the early 1980s and New York City at the same time.  The title comes from one little passage of reflection at the very end, and while it does have a ring to it and some lovely alliteration, it's not exactly relevant to the plot.  The plot revolves around Isaac Amin, a gem dealer who is arrested for mysterious reasons, and his family as they go through the ordeal of his imprisonment while trying to keep up appearances.  While Isaac struggles with life in prison, never knowing if each night will be his last, his wife and daughter face harassment from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard at their home.  Farnaz, Isaac's wife, tries to keep life moving on, and his daughter Shirin steals files from the house of one of her friends in the hope that the files' subjects will escape her father's fate.  Meanwhile, Isaac's son Parviz attends university in New York City and only has spotty communication with his family, and lives an impoverished life when they are not able to send money, at the same time becoming involved in the lives of the Mendelsons, a family of Hasidic Jews from whom he rents his living space.

It took me a while to get into this book, mainly because not much was happening.  Sofer's writing style just didn't grab me and pull me in, and after Isaac's arrest--which happens almost immediately--there's a lot of day-to-day stuff going on before the next "big thing" come along.  It ended at a sort of strange place, and overall felt rather anti-climatic.  That said, I did get into the book about halfway through and enjoyed it, though it's probably not one that I'll grab for the next time I want to read something about the Middle East.  It was good, but not really remarkable; that's pretty much all there is to it.  It did, however, leave me wanting a Turkish-style tea set, for some strange reason.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Officer and the Bostoner - Rose Gordon (Fort Gibson Officers #1)

18104279Oh, historic romances.  How you pull my heartstrings--and not always in the ways the authors intended.  I was hoping when I dove into Gordon's book that I'd be finding a new Julia Quinn or Lisa Kleypas to devour, albeit one whose book was set in the early American West instead of in London society.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.  The book wasn't bad, but it just wasn't what I look for in a historical romance novel.
So, The Officer and the Bostoner (the use of Bostoner rather than Bostonian is completely deliberate, by the way) follows Allison Piers, who gets off a stagecoach to get a bite to eat and ends up left behind in a military fort on the edge of Indian lands.  She was on her way to meet her fiance--now she's stranded with no way of getting out for at least a few weeks.  In swoops Captain Wes Tucker, who offers to marry her, keep his hands to himself, and annul the marriage when Allison's fiance arrives to rescue her so that she won't be harassed by the fort's other soldiers in the meantime.  Allison doesn't see any other real options for herself, and so she agrees, and the prim Bostoner/Bostonian has to get used to rough living on the frontier.
While the story isn't the most original, I can't really fault that, because most historical romances revolve around tropes to fuel them.  That didn't bother me.  What bothered me was that Gordon apparently couldn't decide whether this was going to be a sweet or sultry romance, and so almost three-quarters of the way through it flops from one to the other.  The first, larger part of the book has glances and blushes and occasional, mostly accidental touches and all kinds of modesty and so on, and while Allison and Wes had their moments, they definitely weren't getting steamy and ripping each others' clothes off, or even sticking their tongues in each others' mouths.  And then, in the span of about two pages, it suddenly turns into all kinds of trailing tongues and vanishing clothes and...well, you get the picture.  I really wish that either Wes and Allison had...not necessarily become physically involved earlier, but maybe had a stronger attraction to each other earlier.  Maybe more steamy kissing or something?  Nothing too much, just enough so that I'd know which way the book was going to go!  The sudden emergence of steam in the last part combined with the outpouring of sudden drama (FAR more drama than in the rest of the book, really just dumped in at once) made the whole thing seem a bit unbalanced, and it flopped from sweet-but-slightly-boring into too-much-at-once territory very quickly.

So, I guess The Officer and the Bostoner wasn't quite my cup of tea.  Or coffee, right, Wes?  That said, Gordon seems like a pretty prolific writer in the historical romance genre, so maybe I just need to find a setting/characters that suit my fancy a bit more and we'll be a better match.  But as for this one...?

2.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Servants of the Storm - Delilah S. Dawson

Servants of the StormI wish I hadn't read this book.  I really do.  Because dear lord, I loved it so, so much, and then I got to the end and was consumed by a fiery rage.  For the vast majority of the book, I was enthralled.  I loved Dovey, and Isaac, and kind of hated Baker because he was annoying, but overall the story reminded me of nothing more than Holly Black's Tithe and Valiant and Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely, except it doesn't deal with faeries and it was set in the south, specifically Savannah.  It has the same deal of someone seeing what other people can't and getting pulled into a mess bigger than themselves and oh dear lord, I was loving it so, so much.It had a sort of post-apocalyptic feel to it, too, though it was actually a post-natural disaster setting, and that mixed with the supernatural aspect also had me thinking of Kresley Cole's Poison Princess, which I found annoying to begin with but was completely enthralled by when I got to the end.  It was set up to be a five-star book, to be read again and again, all the way.  This was going to be a book I was talking about for days, recommending to everyone I came across.  It was on its way to being a star.

And then the end.  This is a book that, if I had not been reading it on my laptop (it was Simon and Schuster's book of the week on their PulseIt website), I would have thrown it across the room in a fit of rage.  Is Dovey an unreliable narrator?  Is she not?  I don't know.  I HATE IT SO MUCH.  Is there a sequel?  Don't know.  It's set up like there should be, but since this book technically hasn't even been released for about a half hour after I'm writing this (11:30PM on August 4th, though this will likely be posted later) it's hard to say.  It's not listed as being in a series on either Goodreads or Amazon, though.  But then, I don't think Tithe was supposed to have sequel/companion books when it was first published, either, though I could be wrong about that.  But STILL.  I am so angry at Dawson right now that I can barely type.  I want some type of closure in my books, you know?  It doesn't even have to be closure that I like, though I obviously prefer closure that I like!  BUT THIS.  NO.  NOT EVEN A LITTLE.  In fact, this book has led me to create a new "rage-inducing" shelf on Goodreads, of which it is currently the only occupant.

I adored SO SO MUCH OF THIS BOOK and then absolutely HATED the ending, and not in the same way I hated the endings to other books, like Gods in Alabama.  With that, I felt disappointed that so much excellent storytelling had come to such a lackluster conclusion.  With this, I just feel cheated.  Cheated isn't a good way to leave your readers--or at least it's not a good way to leave me.  It makes me hold a grudge against you, dear Delilah S. Dawson.  How I wish you had chosen to do something else.  If a sequel to Servants of the Storm appears, I'll probably pick it up seeking the closure that I didn't get here--but I won't be reading any of Dawson's other books, because I'm not going to set myself up for that sort of disappointment again.

Seriously, guys.  Just go read Tithe instead.  It'll give you the same feeling of beauty and decay and creepiness and fantasy and romance--all of the good parts of this book--and in the end, you'll still have closure.

2.5 out of 5 stars, right in the middle, for both the beauty and rage.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahFirst off, can I say that Adichie is actually featured on a BeyoncĂ© track?  How cool is that?  I mean, Adichie is a fantastic writer on her own merits and definitely didn't need BeyoncĂ© to be taken seriously as a writer, but still.  Pretty cool.  (The feature, if anyone is interested, is an excerpt of a speech Adichie gave about why everyone should be feminists.)

I've read all of Adichie's other works and really loved them, and was thrilled to finally get my hands on Americanah, which was checked out at the library pretty much since it came out.  Let me tell you, it didn't disappoint.  It spans oceans and years, following the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerians who fell in love in secondary school, and where their lives take them.  When the book opens, Ifemelu is living in Princeton, and is preparing to move back to Lagos in Nigeria.  Obinze is married and living in Lagos.  The bulk of the book is the story of how these two got to where they are, being a series of flashbacks that aren't necessarily in sequential order.  The book was ever so slightly out of balance in that the beginning and middle kind of outweighed the end, length-wise, but of course that's not a deal breaker.  Adichie can write an absolutely stunning drama, and Americanah was no exception.  Her characters are terribly, tragically real.  They do things that they regret and they have very real, very human flaws that make them unlikeable at points, but you can never really stop rooting for them because you know them so well and want them to succeed.  Their transformations across the years as they age and mature are also startling, something which becomes very apparent when Ifemelu eventually returns to Nigeria as an "Americanah," someone who's spent time in America an has been changed by it.  Also, her handling of setting is phenomenal.  I've never been most of the places Adichie writes about (the only one I've seen myself is Baltimore) and yet I can really picture them through her magnificent prose.

One feature I found very interesting was Ifemelu's profession as a blogger--though I did find it a bit unrealistic how quickly she gained followers.  While she has several other jobs throughout the book, her ultimate calling is apparently blogging, and she runs a blog full of her own observation on black Americans through the eyes of a non-American black.  Let me tell you, there are some real stingers about how Americans view race and how deeply ingrained it is in our society, but they were well-thought out and succinct rather than offensive--though I find it easy to believe that some people would find them offensive.  She's blunt, but honest, and that's marvelously refreshing.  I do know that novels are hardly ever biographical, but at the same time I'm forced to wonder how much came from Adichie's own experiences, just because of how poignant some of the happenings here are.  Overall, it's a truly stunning book, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves good literature and good drama.

Also, kudos to her publisher for having such a lovely cover and not just plastering on a picture of a sunset and an acacia tree.

5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid - Tim Ecott

Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream OrchidSo, I have a thing about food.  It's no secret.  I have a fabulous metabolism now, but let me tell you, when I get older, I am going to be so fat because I love to eat.  A lot.  Vanilla was just my latest foray into the world of books about food.  And let me tell you, if you're looking for a book about food to read on vacation, this is a great one.  I took it with me to Maine, which was lovely but was nonetheless a far cry from the tropical areas where vanilla is grown, and I spent the entire time pining after after the perfect scoop of vanilla ice cream.

That said...this isn't much of a history of vanilla.  I mean, there's a history of vanilla there, but it's interspersed with all kinds of other stuff.  There's an entire chapter about life on the island of Bourbon/Reunion that doesn't touch on vanilla at all.  Really, it does come across as Ecott traveling a lot and writing a book about vanilla to justify it.  Not that it's a bad thing--I loved reading his descriptions of Mexico, Tahiti, Madagascar, and all the other stops along the way, and his interactions with the people who make up the vanilla industry.  My biggest complaint was that the narrative had a weird sort of organization.  While I would have liked to see vanilla go from the vine to the processing and then onwards, in order, it bounced around a lot, going from vine to processing back to vine to the food it goes into and all around in a manner that wasn't confusing, per se, but certainly seemed a bit discordant.

This book wasn't a really "dense" history, if that makes sense; the history is really just glazed over, for the most part, with a few more in-depth pieces about individuals who made a real impact.  But, like I said before, that made it a great, easy vacation read.  and it made me want to travel, too, and eat vanilla ice cream all the while.  The book barely went into the modern industry at all--apparently the modern vanilla industry is full of deep, dark secrets that no one is willing to disclose--but I still found it thoroughly enjoyable.  Overall, it reminded me a great deal of Rachel Louise Snyder's Fugitive Denim, which deals with the modern denim industry and travels about in a manner similar to Ecott's.  I really enjoyed Fugitive Denim, so it's not really a surprise that I liked Vanilla, too.  This isn't a book for someone looking for a detailed, scientific look at vanilla, but it is a book for someone like me who likes food and travel and good writing, and I would definitely recommend it on those aspects.

4 stars out 5.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Tea Cups & Tiger Claws - Timothy Patrick

Tea Cups & Tiger ClawsI am probably one of very few people in my demographic in the US who has not watched Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones and has not read the Song of Ice and Fire books.  Still, much of it has somehow been absorbed into my pop culture subconscious, such as the fact that George R. R. Martin called Walter White a monster worse than anyone in Westeros.  And while I know that there are some real doozies of monsters out there in fiction-land, I think Timothy Patrick's character Dorthea Railer could play ball with the worst of them.

Tea Cups & Tiger Claws follows three generations of women, starting with Elma Railer during World War I.  Elma gives birth to identical triplets and allows two of them, Abigail and Judith, to be adopted by a duchess, but she keeps the third baby, Dorthea, for herself--presumably out of spite for the people trying to manipulate her into giving up all three of her children.  The Railer family is, put simply, white trash, and everyone figures that Dorthea will end up just as bad as the rest of them.  She doesn't.  She ends up much, much worse.  As Dorthea tries to claw her way to the top of Prospect Park society and find her place in the mansion on the hill, she creates her own little underworld, complete with drugs, secret dungeons, kidnapping, and a hefty dose of murder.  Sucked into this mess are Abigail and Judith's daughters, good girl Sarah and party girl Veronic, and when Dorthea finally makes her grab for the high life, it's Sarah and Veronica who get caught in the flames.

This is very much a character-driven story, and really all of the characters are reflections of each other, showing what each could have become if things were just a little different.  It's written in a mostly-linear fashion, broken up by great chunks of background info on places and people.  Still, this exposition is written in such a flowing, fluid style that I didn't feel it bogged down the narrative at all, but instead made it even fuller and richer.  The level of detail could have easily strayed into the territory of dull and lifeless, but instead left just enough to the imagination to keep me interested.

There were a few issues--some misplaced or misused words, some typos and rough grammar in a few areas, though not enough to be ruinous to the whole.  The thing that bothered me most was part of the mystery I never felt was truly resolved.  One of the characters leaves clues tot eh others that are meant to help stop Dorthea.  While I am pretty sure I know who the helper is, it was never said outright, and the "how"s and "why"s of the aid are left somewhat in the dark.  I really would have liked to see that fleshed out a bit more to add some more completeness to the story.  Still, I could gather enough on my own, I guess, and the engaging characters and prose kept me going long after I should have been asleep on more than one night.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Chasing the Star Garden - Melanie Karsak (Airship Racing Chronicles #1)

Chasing the Star Garden (The Airship Racing Chronicles, #1)First off, can I just say look at that cover art?  Gorgeous.  Absolutely gorgeous.  I am jealous of Karsak for having such beautiful cover art.

Now, on to the substance.  Chasing the Star Garden follows our narrator, Lily Stargazer, as she tries to unravel the mystery of a kaleidoscope given to her under strange circumstances.  Lily is mainly an air jockey, and the book falls into a series called "The Airship Racing Chronicles," but really, there is very little to do with airship racing here; only two chapters (the first and the last) feature any real racing.  The bulk of the story follows the kaleidoscope mystery.  Lily is also somewhat of an alcoholic (her drink of choice is absinthe) and a user of both laudanum and opium, has two lovers that feature in the story (one of which is a fictionalized version of Lord Byron) and is a little bit into BDSM.  Some of these qualities, mainly the addictions and her behavior regarding them, are rather less than endearing.  For example, Lily has taken so much laudanum at one point that the airship she's supposed to be piloting ends up in trouble because she's high.  However, Lily is well aware that she might be on a bad path, wondering, "If I continued like I did, what would be my end destination?  The answer to that question was not pretty.  I'd stopped asking it long ago."  This self-awareness is rather more endearing, and allows one to root for Lily getting over her issues and finding some meaning in her life.

Character-wise, I rather liked most of them.  Lily and her crew, Jessup and August, as well as Lord Byron and Lily's other lover, Sal, are all great.  Celeste, a courtesan who shows up partway through, was less great.  She was okay, I guess, but overall I found her bland, when her origins and plotline should have lent her an air of mystique.  I liked how Lily's back story unraveled, and maybe Celeste would have been more interesting if she'd had a little more back story or we could see inside her head more--impossible, given the first-person perspective, but still.  I would have also liked to see a bit more integration of the airship racing story, and the characters that went with it, like Cutter the American pilot and Etienne the French pilot.

I did find some plotholes in the main storyline, which revolves around using the mysterious kaleidoscope to search for a statue which was lost during ancient times.  One part of the story involves using another statue to find it, which didn't make sense to me because the guy who carved and placed the statues had nothing to do with the guy who moved one of them, so why would one point to another?  I also didn't really get how the kaleidoscope worked.  There was something about it being "altered," but the random nature of kaleidoscope patterns kind of goes against the idea of them being able to reveal things when pointed in certain directions and at certain objects.  As the book advanced, it took on more of a fantasy/supernatural/mythology air and kind of lost some of its early steampunk flair, with airships being used but not being the focus of the story.  While this didn't really bother me, I can see where it would bother some people who were in it for a thoroughly steampunk tale, so keep that in mind; as the book goes on, the steampunk element is more for atmosphere than it is for actual substance.  Oh, and as far as the "star garden" goes, it just refers to the sky, which is a bit...purple for my tastes.

Lastly, I found the entire final chapter rather abrupt.  The reunion, the abbreviated race, the heroics--it all kind of seemed to jar with the speed of the rest of the story, and felt like Karsak just got tired of writing and wanted to wrap it all up.  While I have no objections to the ending logically or emotionally, the pacing just seemed to  I would have preferred to see this slowed down and fleshed out a bit more than it actually was.

Overall, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this, and will be picking up the next book of Lily's adventures, Chasing the Green Fairy--though I'd also be interested in seeing books following other main characters in this world!

3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Swan King - Christopher McIntosh

The Swan King: Ludwig II of BavariaThe Swan King is a biography of Ludwig II of Bavaria, the king responsible for the building of fabulous castles such as Neuschwanstein, which supposedly served as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland in California.  Ludwig was a fascinating character, living more in his mind than in the real world, with an obsession for mythology and the music of Wagner.  He didn't spend much time in his capital of Munich, instead spending most of his time on the throne traveling between the various castles and palaces of Bavaria and sponsoring Wagner in the arts.  He went mad towards the end of his life and eventually died under what seem to be mysterious circumstances, leading to the question of whether he committed suicide or whether he was murdered.

Overall, I really liked this book.  I felt the pacing was pretty good, although it did get bogged down in the politics of Germany and Europe in general at a few times.  This is hard to avoid in biographies of rulers, though, because so much of their lives does depend on what's happening on the larger world stage.  Unfortunately, one of the most interesting documents that MacInstosh could have used, Ludwig's "secret diary," was destroyed during World War II, but he still has lots of letters and such to draw on as documentary evidence.

That said...this book was somewhat lacking in citations, which makes me a little uneasy.  Some things, like how Ludwig ordered a bunch of servants to go rob the Rothschild bank in order to finance his castles, seem like they really should have had a citation, ,and yet they don't.  The book has 204 pages of biographical content, and about 12 pages of citations at the back, most of which are "Ibid."  There's also a lot of "projecting," where McIntosh kind of puts words into Ludwig's mouth via the phrase "must have," which really put me off.  As in, "Ludwig must have felt..." "Ludwig must have thought..." and so on.  How can you make those claims?  There are very rarely quotes or citations surrounding them, and it puts me off somewhat as someone who spent the past four years of her life getting a history degree and citing everything.  Also, note that this book is published by a company called "I. B. Taurus and Comopany," not by one of the notable academic presses such as Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, etc. which makes it a bit less reputable in my eyes.  Granted, some very academic books can come out of less-known presses, but I'm not entirely sure this was one of them.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable read, but I also would have found it a more trustworthy read if it had been better sourced and cited.

2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Marriage List - Dorothy McFalls

The Marriage ListAs far as regency romances go, I would say The Marriage List was just okay.  The two main characters are May, who is described as "squat" with "amber" hair, and Radford, who was injured on the Peninsula and has struggled with his crushed leg and foot ever since.  Both Radford and May do everything because of a sense of duty.  Radford feels like it's his duty to marry a suitable girl and carry on the family name so that his mother doesn't end up distressed.  May does everything in the name of family duty to care for her ailing Aunt Winnie.  The two of them are convinced that even though they are attracted to each other, they can never be together because being together would get in the way of their duties.  Overall, they were just too similar in personality to make their interactions terribly interesting, and the witty banter for which regency romances are generally known was pretty much entirely lacking.  The entire book was pretty much one character going, "I can't be with him/her," and then the other character doing the same.  There was a slight secondary conflict built in involving May's uncle, and if that had been played up a bit more, the narrative might have been more interesting.  As it was, I just found it bland.  Honestly, the most interesting characters in the whole thing were the side characters, Wynters (I don't remember his first name), who was Radford's best friend, and May's best friend Iona--oh, and Princess the horse!

This is also a "sweet" romance, rather than a "sultry" one, which means that the steamiest it gets is some kissing.  Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but combined with the bland plot and bland characters, I found myself struggling to continue on.  I did finish the book, but it didn't really capture my interest like regency romances by some of the greats like Julia Quinn and Lisa Kleypas.  This edition also had some typos, missing words, and so on, and could have used a final editing.

2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Beyond the Cliffs of Kerry - Amanda Hughes (Bold Women of the 18th Century #1)

13549660Beyond the Cliffs of Kerry follows Darcy McBride, a young Irishwoman, from her home in the seaside town of Kilkerry to the American Colonies, where she is sold as an indentured servant following her arrest as a smuggler.  Of course, Darcy is drop dead gorgeous (apparently the only gorgeous woman in the entire world) despite spending many of her developmental years in the midst of a famine, and everyone wants to have sex with her.  While I liked the overall story of this book, it was incredibly slow getting off the ground; Darcy doesn't even get caught until a third of the way in, and then there's a ship voyage before she gets to the colonies, too, all of it in incredible detail.  Except that detail isn't really a good thing in this particular book, because Hughes just dumps it all in your lap and tells you what's going on; there is absolutely no emotion in this book, and there should have been emotion.  Tons of it.  There are several instances of rape or attempted rape, betrayal, heartbreak--and through it all, Darcy and everyone around her appear to remain mostly flat and emotionless, making what could have been a riveting tale somewhat difficult to read.  You can't just tell me "She was in love with him," because what does that even mean?  I want to know how he made her heart beat faster in her chest, how she found it hard to breathe around him, like someone was squeezing her lungs--things that I can empathize with.  But no, there's none of that.  And even in the wake of two rapes, Darcy doesn't really seem to care.  Hughes says later that "Darcy was terrified of rape" but she does absolutely nothing to show us that Darcy was terrified of rape.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  It was just...flat.
There are also significant grammar problems in this book, mainly in the "unnecessary comma" department, which makes the sentences seem choppy and stilted, and the "missing and extra quotation marks" department, which makes it a bit unclear where dialogue begins and ends.  This could definitely do with another good editing.
I did, however, like that Hughes set the book during what we here in the US call the French and Indian War (I believe it's the Seven Years' War in other places?) because it is a rather underutilized time period in historical fiction.
2 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Flame Moon - K. J. Jackson (Flame Moon #1)

15848266I'll admit it--I had lower expectations for Flame Moon.  But when I finally read it, I was very pleased.  The story follows Skye, a girl who goes on a kayaking trip in Colorado, falls in the river, and wakes up with no memory.  Without a memory, or really anything else, she is forced to depend on a group of people who are willing to help her until she can figure out where she came from, where she was going, and what she was doing.  A group that includes, I might point out, her super hawtt kayaking guide, Aiden.  Who's engaged to another woman.  Oops.  But the longer Skye stays, the more complicated things get, and they quickly trend into the realm of the supernatural, with the group Skye has fallen in with and Skye herself possessing various powers. There's action, there's romance, there's some cool training scenes, there's sex.  Skye is a strong character who has made mistakes but is willing to struggle on, and while Aiden can be a bit possessive, and definitely wouldn't be a good romantic match for a lot of people, for them it works.
That said...there were still some issues.  There were some run-on sentences, missing punctuation and typos every now and then, but they weren't rampant.  There were a couple of big plotholes, which I would love to discuss but feel like I really can't without spoilers.  Basically, though, someone wants Skye dead or turned evil, and sets up an elaborate plan to do it when in reality they could have just grabbed her from the get-go, and this someone also thinks that doing some things are definitely not in Skye's best interests are to protect her, explanations which I found lacking.  The amnesia plotline and the matter of revealing a supernatural world to Skye results in a lot of info-dumping at the beginning of the book, which is never really a good thing.  While I liked how Skye's returning memories were handled at first, that quickly ended, and suddenly Skye just remembered everything, which was very abrupt, and then suddenly we're expected to make connections with people and events in Skye's memories that were never explained, leaving me a bit baffled as to how Skye knew some of the things she did.  I also thought the "climax" of the book came a bit early, which left a lot of story afterwards that didn't have as much propelling it.  Oh, and the sex was good, but I did get kind of tired of Skye screaming during it all the time.
Still, I found all of those issues relatively minor, and overall I really enjoyed Flame Moon.  I would definitely recommend this to someone looking for a good paranormal romance, I look forward to reading the other two books in this trilogy.
3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Refuge - N. G. Osborne (Refuge #1)

RefugeThis book was a complicated one for me, because I really liked the overall story, but I still had some issues with it that definitely got in the way of the reading experience.  The plot follows three main characters: Charlie, an American who has moved to Peshawar, Pakistan to work for a company called Mine Aware that hopes to demine villages and fields in Afghanistan; Noor, an Afghan refugee who teaches at a girl's school and hopes to get a scholarship to study abroad; and Tariq, Noor's older brother and a member of the mujadhideen, who were people fighting to free Afghanistan from Soviet/Russian control during the Cold War and its aftermath.  These three are supported by characters such as Noor's father, Charlie's assistant, an American CIA operative, and a Dutch administrator hoping to climb the "aid" career ladder.  There are two major plots at play: one revolves around Charlie and Noor and their relationship (or lack thereof) and the other revolves around Tariq, who promises a Saudi prince that he can marry Noor, only to find that she had fled his grasp, at which point he begins to hunt her down to fulfill his promise and advance his own interests.  I thought the plots worked together wonderfully, and I really loved Noor's reluctance to be interested in Charlie, because she wants a life of her own, not to be rescued by someone.  She seeks shelter with him reluctantly, and their relationship has what seems like a natural growth from conflict to affection, and Noor shelters some very real doubts about it the whole time, which I can't imagine any woman in her position wouldn't shelter.  As for Charlie, he grows immensely during his time in Peshawar and Afghanistan, both professionally and personally, and I thought it was handled very well--though I did have to wonder where he was getting all the money (stacks of hundred dollar bills) that he was throwing around!

Also, I loved how this book treated the use of the burqa.  While burqas are commonly seen as a sign of repression here in the US, Osborne used them fabulously in his story telling.  While, for some women in his narrative, burqas are a symbol of oppression and the control of women by men, for others they represent safety.  When Noor is hiding from her brother, she adopts wearing a burqa in the streets and is amazed at how invisible it makes her and how it enables her to go about her life without harassment, and consequently she doesn't revile it--and Noor is a huge believer of equality between men and women.  I think allowing such a strong, feminist character to find safety in the use of a burqa (that she adopted via her own choice, not someone else's, albeit not for religious reasons) was a great choice on Osborne's part.

But, like I said, I still had some issues with the book.

First, it needs a good line editor.  There are tons of places with misplaced (or, more frequently, missing) commas.  Now, I am a huge fan of the comma, and am probably prone to overusing them, but there were definitely places were a comma was grammatically necessary and was missing.  Also prevalent were a slew of instances in which a question mark should have been replaced with a period and vice versa, because the punctuation used did not actually match the sentence it was attached to.  Also, there were several long stretches of dialogue with no tags such as "said" used, which normally wouldn't be an issue...except Osborne starts new paragraphs rather arbitrarily, so sometimes keeping track of who was talking was difficult because I wasn't sure if the speaker had actually changed or if it was just a new paragraph with the same speaker.

Second, I had an issue with the characterization of Elma.  I can't say too much about this without spoilers, but while Elma is originally made out to be a career woman who will sleep her way to the top if necessary, the majority of the narrative built up her softer side.  She was definitely determined to advance herself, but she was still a real thinking, feeling person.  I felt like this all changed at the end of the book, and was truly appalled at how easily she lost that humanity.

And, third and last, I don't think this needed to be a series.  I think some of the subplots could probably have been cut out, and the narrative streamlined a bit more in order to allow it to become one book instead of multiples.  I might pick up the next one (I'm not entirely sure how many there are, honestly) but I'm not sure at this point.  If I do, I hope that it's better structured and edited than this first volume.  However, overall I think the story was a solid one, and I would recommend this to anyone with the patience to wade through its flaws for the gem at their center.

3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Ghost Pirate's Treasure - Barbara Ivie Green (Paranormally Yours #1)

The Ghost Pirate's Treasure: Mystery of the Jaguar Warrior (Paranormally Yours, #1)Part of the blurb for The Ghost Pirate's Treasure claims that the book "explores the mystery of the Mayan Sun calendar, with enough nonsense thrown in to make it all deliriously whacky." Well, "nonsense" and "deliriously whacky" are right, but not in a good way.  I think most of the "nonsense" mentioned in the blurb comes from two things: the fact that Green is obviously desperately in need of a good editor, and her complete inability to keep various Mesoamerican cultures straight.  The book claims to explore the mystery of the Mayan sun calendar, by which it mainly means "the supposed end of the world on 12/21/12."  Except it also deals with El Dorado, Quetzacoatl, and Peru, none of which have anything do with each other.  El Dorado, as in the city of gold, was supposedly located in the Amazon River basin.  Quetzacoatl was the serpent god made famous by the myth of the Aztecs and Hernando Cortes, and the Aztecs and their famous city of Tenochtitlan were located where Mexico City is today.  (Side note: there is historical reason to believe the Aztecs didn't actually think Cortes was Quetzacoatl, and that the "myth" of Quetzacoatl's return was made up after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in order to justify their loss.)  Peru was in the area of the Incas, the Andes Mountains.  And the Mayans were prominent around the area of the Yucatan Peninsula.  What does all of this mean?  While most of these civilizations shared some commonalities, as they were not completely cut off from each other, they were not the same and their mythologies, cultures, and ways of life differed immensely.  Seriously, if you're going to write a book about the end of the world based on the Mayan calendar, at least actually use Mayan history and culture, rather than mishmash of whatever you think is cool.  A little consistency is great, and considering that all of the things I mentioned above can be discovered on Wikipedia in a matter of minutes, you would think that it would be easy to realize that they're not of the same origins and consequently shouldn't be thrown into the same plot without something larger to bind them together--and if you don't try to unite them in some logical way, eventually someone who actually paid attention in history class (like me) is going to pick up your book and go, "What the heck is this person talking about?"  Oh, and also, the Maya were not completely wiped out by the Spanish, and many people of Mayan descent still live in Mexico today, and a variety of Mayan languages are still thriving.

Now let's get on to the editing.  It's awful.  Atrocious.  Misuses of "your" and "you're," misplaced and missing quotation marks, random italics that don't make any sense, awkward changes of viewpoint, clunky sentences, and strange formatting abound.  While the spelling is pretty good, the grammar isn't, and the formatting is pretty bad.  Green apparently doesn't know where to properly place quotation marks, insert line breaks in dialogue, or even properly use dialogue tags.  Let me give you an example.  Things such as: "Blah blah blah," Jessie said.  "Blabby blabby blab," Jessie whined, abound in this book, and anyone who reads or writes much can probably tell you right off the bat that the second dialogue tag isn't necessary.  I find it highly unlikely that Green utilized an editor for this book, and she should have.  Everyone needs an editor.  No author is good enough to just self-edit, and I'm not entirely sure Green even did that, given the nightmarish quotation mark situation.

Finally, let me address issues of the plot other than historical accuracy.  The plot is...flimsy, at best.  There's very little explanation, and we jump from, "There is a ghost with a hidden treasure," to "It's the end of the world!" with very little in-between.  Annoying characters abound and the "villain" of the piece appears to have been thrown in at the last minute because there's really no build-up to his villainy.  At the beginning, Jacques the ghost pirate suggests that he's some dark and menacing demon, and this is never delivered upon.  The romance, for what it is, is pretty much instant; within the space of four days Jessie goes from divorcing her husband to falling in love with a dead guy who she thought was a figment of her imagination for two days.  In the world of books, there is a difference between face-past and rushed, and this definitely falls into the category of rushed.  Also, Green had the extremely annoying habit of using words like "potty" and "pee-peed," as if her audience isn't mature enough to read the word "toilet" without snickering like a bunch of two year olds.  And there's also something near the end about one of the characters gaining supernatural abilities out of nowhere.  Uhm...where did that come from?  I'm so confused.  Overall, it felt like Green had a bunch of different plots and just decided to mash them all together with no feel for consistency between one and the other, and came out with a great big mess as a result.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Alchemy - Mike Wood

Okay.  Let me begin by copying and pasting the description of this book.  According to Goodreads, Alchemy is about how, "The summer of 1984 was a golden time in America. From California, where gymnast Mary Lou Retton was winning Olympic gold, to Cape Cod, where explorer Barry Clifford was discovering pirate gold, the nation seemed obsessed with the precious metal. But for 15-year old Al, that obsession hits a little too close to home when he finds a code-filled notebook belonging to his missing father that may contain the ancient formula for turning lead to gold. Convinced that his father's sudden disappearance is connected to his secret experiments in alchemy, Al sets out to find the truth. He enlists the help of Cammie, a beautiful girl staying for the summer while her marine biologist father tracks a wayward manatee, and together they begin unraveling the mystery. But the closer they get to an answer, the closer they grow to each other, and as the end of summer draws nearer, Al wonders if they can break the code without breaking his heart."

That said...that's not really what this book is about.  Okay, there's a notebook with a code in it, and Al's father did go missing several years ago.  But that's not the real story.  The real story mainly revolves around Al's relationship (or wannabe relationship, depending) with Cammie, and the notebook and the "mystery" are pretty  much a ploy to get her to spend time with him.  That said...the summary is also a blatant lie.  Al, our narrator, is a blatant liar.  You know what I don't like?  Unreliable narrators.  They can be done incredibly well, when you know they're unreliable the whole time, and spend the entire book questioning what's real and what's not.  But when you get to the end and find out that half the plot wasn't actually plot?  No.  No.  That's not cool.  See, up until the end, I really loved Alchemy.  Okay, there were some issues.  Wood apparently doesn't know to properly punctuate when using parentheses at the end of a sentence, and also is a little shaky on how to use quotation marks on dialogue that spans more than one paragraph.  (For future reference, if the parentheses are a separate sentence, the punctuation goes inside them; if they are included in a larger sentence, the punctuation goes outside them.  Also, if your dialogue spans more than one paragraph, you put quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph of dialogue, and then one final set of end quotation marks when your character stops speaking.)  Still, I enjoyed the narrative style.  There were some other aspects that put me off a bit (for example, Al's age is listed by the book as being 15, but the timeline is a little shaky sometimes so it's often hard to tell how old he is, and he has a job at one point but then it never shows up again) but I liked the overall story and the mystery and how it was all coming together.  Would I have liked some more involvement of the Hugh Manatee storyline, or the story about the guys looking for pirate gold?  Yeah.  Sure.  Definitely.  But I was still thoroughly enjoying the book, and it was looking at a four-star rating.

Then there was the end.  The end was preachy.  The end completely derailed the rest of the book.  Honestly, I think it would have been perfectly possible to end Alchemy without trying to beat me over the head with the lesson of "appreciate what you have before it's gone" and turning the entire mystery into a red herring.  I was so incredibly disappointed by how the ending dragged on and felt the need to beat me over the head with the moral lesson when the lesson should have been clear from the entire book; really, it's like War and Peace.  When I say that, I mean that in War and Peace, Tolstoy spends the entire book building up his philosophy of history, and then spends the last forty or so pages of the book telling you exactly the same thing but all in one place.  It's just not necessary, and it results in treating your reader like they are intellectually inferior and aren't smart enough to "get" the point you've been making.

So, yeah, I enjoyed the bulk of Alchemy.  But in the end, being treated like I couldn't understand the lesson of the book and being told that half the book had just been a decoy was so infuriating that it completely ruined the rest of the experience for me.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Chasing the Sun - Natalia Sylvester

Chasing the Sun: A NovelIn Lima, Peru in 1992, Andres Jimenez runs a fairly successful label-making company, though he and his family are far from rich.  His wife, Marabela, is a stay-at-home mom and photographer, who once took pictures for the paper but now has been relegated to a space within the house.  And lately, the two have been growing apart--though none of that seems to matter to Andres when Marabela vanishes one evening, and he gets a ransom note in the mail the next day.

This is a novel not about a kidnapping, though of course there is a kidnapping in it, but of relationships, and how we end up where we are, with the people we are with.  It's a story of forced separations and growing apart and then finding each other again, in a myriad of different ways.  Rounding out the cast of characters are Ignacio and Cynthia, the Jimenez children; Guillermo, a consultant hired to help get Marabela back; Lorena, Andres' estranged mother; Carla and Consuelo, the maids of the Jimenez household; and Elena, Andres' childhood best friend and the girl he was supposed to marry before he met Marabela.  All of these people with, perhaps, the exception of Guillermo and Consuelo, are complete emotional messes.  They're all mixed up in all sorts of ways, and Sylvester weaves what's a pretty beautiful story of them trying to find their way through their lives and the tension surrounding Marabela's disappearance.

One thing I really would have loved would have been some scenes of Marabela while she was in captivity.  Having read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's News of a Kidnapping last year, I think I expected a little more "action" from this book.  However, that's clearly not what this narrative was supposed to be, and I can respect that.  One thing I also would have liked would have been more descriptions and interactions with Lima itself.  I love reading books about places I might never get the opportunity to see, and I thought would have really enjoyed seeing more engagement with the location.  That said, however, Sylvester's writing is beautiful--although it is, I must point out, in present tense.  Present tense isn't my favorite and I know it can grate on the nerves of some people, so I think I should throw that out there.  Whenever I read present-tense books I find myself writing in present tense, too, which really annoys me.  However, once you get into the narrative, it doesn't seem as jarring as it does at first, and I did find myself thoroughly engaged with the Jimenezs' story.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Color Master - Aimee Bender

The Color Master: StoriesLike most story collections, The Color Master varies wildly in quality from one story to another.  The book is loosely divided into parts, which start out more "realistic" and get more "fantastic" as the book goes on, though all of them blend elements of reality and fantasy, whether it's a traditional swords-and-sorcery type of fantasy or a more modern sexual type of fantasy, or just an element of surrealism.  The stories cover everything from a woman convincing two of her male friends to have sex with each other to a man who thinks he's a Nazi but isn't to more fairytale-like stories including ogres and dresses the color of the moon.

That last one, the story with the dress the color of the moon, is the source of the book's title.  "The Color Master" was definitely one of the strongest stories in the book, telling the tale of the people who made the famous dresses of the fairytale "Donkeyskin."  It captures doubt, fear, anger, and grief while mixing in a somewhat comic, disorganized work environment.

Some of the stories, on the other hand, just didn't make much sense to me.  I wasn't sure what to think of "Appleless," the first story in the collection, which at first appears to be about a girl who doesn't like apples but might actually be about murder or rape or both; I'm not entirely sure.  This not-being-sure-what-to-think spanned much of the book for me.  In most of the stories, I felt like I was just missing the point, which left an unpleasant feeling of disappointment and confusion--not what I'm looking for out of pleasure reading.  Maybe I'm just not cut out for the majority of Bender's short stories.  Still, if surrealism is something you're interested in, this would probably be a good read.  If you're not very good at interpreting tons of layers of narrative though (like I'm apparently not) this might not be the book for you.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Undertaking of Lily Chen - Danica Novgorodoff

17934370This book isn't what I was expecting.  I was expecting some sort of magical realism, I think, with lots of ghosts and specters and cool shit like that, and some really complex moral dilemmas, and some intense character development, and I just didn't get that.  Maybe it's because I'm just not a graphic novel person.  I try and I try and I try to enjoy them, but I really just don't get as complex of a story out of a graphic novel as I do out of a prose novel.  Anyway, let's get down to it.
I liked the art in this.  It's a pretty unique style in regards to how the people are drawn, but the scenery is what really got to me.  There are some absolutely stunning full-page scenery pictures in here that I would love to be able to purchase as full-size posters.  The story had really great potential.  It revolves around a man named Deshi, whose brother Wei dies in an accident.  Deshi's parents want him to find a dead girl to serve as a "corpse bride" for Wei so he won't be alone in the afterlife.  Deshi sets out to complete his mission, but it turns out dead young women are few and far between in his neck of the woods.  In fact, the only young woman to be found at all is Lily Chen, and she is still very much alive...
But no matter how much potential the story had, I think it just fell flat.  I didn't get a ton of character development out of this, and some of the stuff, from the romance to the ending, just seemed to come out of nowhere.  This book is also Lord of the Rings-esque, and not in a good way; there is a lot of walking, without anything else much happening for much of the book.
Overall, I was disappointed.  I think I might have loved this if it had been written as a prose book, but as a graphic novel it just didn't capture me the way I thought it would.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsSometimes my university's popular fiction section has really good books showcased in it.  Sometimes it doesn't.  This is one of the "doesn't" times.

The plot revolves around a time-traveling serial killer whose mission is to kill a bunch of "shining girls."  Why these girls are shining, we don't know.  Why they need to die, we don't know.  Why the killer can travel through time, we don't know.  Why the the house is magical and allows this weirdness, we don't know.  How any of this works, we don't know.  It's never explained.  Any of it.

The chapters rotate between a wide variety of characters.  There are three main ones: Harper, our serial killer; Kirby, one of his victims who actually lived through his attack and now wants to find him; and Dan, a reporter who covered Kirby's case and is now acting as her mentor at a newspaper while helping her unravel the strands of the mystery.  Dan was utterly lovable, with Kirby's own good in mind.  Kirby was self-destructive.  I can understand wanting the person who attacked and nearly killed you to pay for it, but chasing him into an abandoned house by yourself and with no weapons?  Not good.  Harper is just...meh.  There's absolutely no empathy between Harper and the reader, which makes him an extremely off-putting main character.  It made his chapters a chore to read, which shouldn't have been the case.  Harper's killer psychology should have been fascinating, but it wasn't.  he just killed people for apparently no reason, even when we could see inside his head.  Considering his chapters carry about half the book, that wasn't a highlight.  The other characters are Harper's other various victims, who each have one or two chapters a piece, and those chapters vary greatly in quality.

There's one chapter with Kirby in the time-traveling house that occurs in the narrative way earlier than it probably should have, ruining some of the suspense.  The time travel premise seems to rely on the idea that time is a series of loops, but Harper doesn't ever face any consequences for messing with time, and surely he has to be messing up something with all that back-and-forthing and killing people.  I really, really loved some of the victims and would have liked to see them for more than just a few pages.  Some of the writing was quite good, particularly later in the book with the Kirby and Dan chapters, but early on Beuke's conveyance of negative emotions (anger, fear, sadness, frustration, etc.) relied heavily on the use of profanity.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mind profanity.  But I don't think that it should be the basis for conveying your characters' emotions.

Overall, this book did not shine, unlike the girls it was supposedly about.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Scarecrow King - Jill Myles

The Scarecrow KingIt should not be a surprise to anyone here that I adore a good fairytale.  It's not a secret at all, really, and I am a huge fan of the retold fairytale trend that has been sweeping the media (books, TV, movies, all of it) in recent years.  I have read many, many fairytales, but I don't believe I'm familiar with the King Thrushbeard story.  That, of course, is what The Scarecrow King is based off of.

Our heroine in Rinda, the younger princess of Balinore.  Her mother was a commoner, and while Rinda's older sister seems to have gotten their father's royal genes, Rinda herself seems to be common to the core.  Her father hates her, for a complicated medley of reasons, the primary one seeming to be that her mother died giving birth to her and Rinda reminds him too much of the woman he really loved.  So he pushes her away, and Rinda tries to get his attention by--surprise, surprise--acting out.  In her case, she enjoys spending astronomical amounts of money to piss him off.  For example, the opening scene finds her tossing pearls to fish for kicks.  Rinda's father wants her gone, so he decides to marry off both his daughters.  Imogen, the older of the two, already has a beau, so that's easy.  Rinda doesn't want to get married, and embarks on a quest to alienate every eligible man she can find, including the visiting king.  Furious, her father declares that if she won't marry any noble, then she'll marry the next man who turns up at the castle steps.  The next morning, Rinda finds herself married off to a truly terrible minstrel.

It's really no spoiler that the minstrel is the visiting king in disguise.  We know that, but Rinda doesn't, and watching her fumble her way through her supposed new life as an impoverished minstrel's life is amusing.  Her character develops so much over the course of the story, transforming from a spoiled brat into a poised young woman willing to go to amazing lengths to protect the people she cares about.  Myles' world is also incredibly rich for such a short novel.  The Birthrights of the people of Balinore are interesting, and manifest in such manifold ways that I would love to read more about them.  The Ghost Roads were an intriguing idea with a hint of menace, but nothing to drag down the spirit of the story too much.  The romance builds at a good pace--no insta-love, but no waiting until the last five pages for emotions to appear, either.

I do wish Rinda and Alek had encountered some more troubles on their journey and been forced to rely on each other a bit more.  While the part of the story which took place in the mountains was great, it wasn't really that much of a trial, except for the very end, and I would have liked to see more things happen to bind them closer together.  I also would have liked Imogen to a bit less...plastic.  She wasn't nearly as complex a character, and I would have liked to see her developed a bit more despite her relatively little page time.  Still, these are minor complaints, and I devoured The Scarecrow King in one sitting.  Which wasn't very hard, considering it's a short book, but it was so utterly charming I couldn't help myself.  I would definitely recommend this to someone looking for a short, romantic fairytale-inspired read.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Storm Glass - Maria V. Snyder (Glass #1)

Storm Glass (Glass, #1)
Let me begin by saying that Storm Glass was substantially better than Touch of Power, my last encounter with Maria V. Snyder's work.  However, it definitely has some serious flaws, which lead me to believe that either Poison Study, which I loved, wasn't actually as good as I remember it being, or that it was a one-hit wonder and Snyder has deteriorated since.

The plot of this book revolves around Opal Cowan, a young magician with powers linked to glass.  She first appeared in Snyder's Study series, and that's where the trouble begins.  Though this is the first book in a completely new trilogy, it absolutely cannot stand on its own.  Someone who had not read the entire Study trilogy would be utterly lost when faced with many of the characters and situations Opal faces.  Having read that first trilogy, I knew what was going on, but there was so much mentioned from it that was never explained that a new reader wouldn't know what was being discussed for a significant portion of the book.  While this means that readers of the first series don't have to hear a lot repeated, it also means that Snyder risks alienating new readers by leaving them dazed and confused about what's going on.

There are a couple of plot lines going on in this book, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  One deals with the struggles of the Stormdance clan.  The glass orbs they use to trap the energy of storms have been sabotaged, and they're killing the dancers.  Opal, as a glass magician, is the obvious choice to help discover what's going on.  She's also the obvious choice to help disband a diamond smuggling and counterfeiting operation by telling which gems are glass and where they came from.  These plot lines intertwine, with characters coming and going and things generally progressing.  But about three quarters of the way through the book, Snyder introduces what looks to be another plot line, which relies entirely on material from the first three books.  Some of it is mentioned, very briefly and in passing, in Storm Glass, but not with enough sense.  Also, Opal says she's been having weird dreams related to this plot line ever since her return from the Stormdance lands, which doesn't make any sense because they're not mentioned anywhere before she announces she's been having them.  There is one weird dream she has, but it doesn't appear to be connected at all; apparently it was meant to be, but when it's actually mentioned as a tie-in, it just doesn't make any sense.

Opal is an interesting character in that she's not your typical kick-ass heroine.  She has some unique abilities, but she was also put through a lot of shit in the past, and it's left her with very little confidence in herself.  She doesn't believe that she can actually do anything worthwhile, so her development throughout the course of the story is interesting to watch.  Kade the stormdancer is awesome, and I wish he had been more prevalent in the book.  One of things I didn't like was Snyder's decision to implement the dreaded Love Triangle.  While Ulrick's character wasn't bad, I would have preferred him as a non-love interest.  He was moody and possessive and overall just not a good example of what should be looked for in a relationship.  And then when you throw in the weird Devlen element... Ugh.  I think this could have been de-complicated quite a bit.

The writing is a complicated mix.  I think it gets more complex as the book goes on, because it starts off very simplistic (not in a good way) but that might just have been me adjusting to how it was written.  I think Snyder does a pretty good job capturing Opal's emotions and thoughts, but the descriptions are somewhat lacking.  They're very much tell and very little show, and I think that might stem from the first person nature of the book.  (I generally really don't like first person narratives much at all.)

Still, I overall enjoyed this much more than Touch of Power, and I'll probably read the next book, Sea Glass, to see where Opal goes next.

3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Chills - Heather Boyd (Distinguished Rogues #1)

Chills (Distinguished Rogues, #1)Ah, historical romance.  How you toy with my heart.  So, I'd previously read Boyd's An Accidental Affair, which I did not review here but would recommend to someone looking for a juicy historical romance with a pretty good plot attached to it.  I enjoyed it enough that I looked up what else Boyd has written.  (I spend my weekends devouring historical romances and books about food.  It's my "me" time.)  Chills is the first in a series that An Accidental Affair is apparently related to, but not directly situated in, so of course it was natural book to read next.

What can I say about this...?  Blah.  That's all I can say.  The book is about Constance "Pixie" Grange and Jack, the Marquess of Ettington.  Constance is recently impoverished due to her mother's gambling problem and needs to marry someone rich to cover her debts and avoid prison.  She turns to Jack's twin sister, Virginia, to help her on her husband hunt.  As the debts keep appearing, though, Constance's list of possible husbands gets shorter and shorter.  Meanwhile, Jack--who is also Constance's former guardian, following the death of their fathers--is insulted that he hasn't been included on his list.  As a subplot, Virginia has a love-hate relationship with Jack's best friend Bernard, though she has a darker past linked to her marriage to a now-deceased lord.

Anyway, Chills is downright boring.  It felt nothing happened for the entire book.  Jack and Constance spent the entire thing taking one step forward and two steps back around each other.  Virginia and Bernard's plot would have made a much more compelling main storyline, while Constance and Jack could have easily been relegated to subplot territory without losing anything.  Also, the title.  What?  What chills?  The only chill anyone gets in this book is from falling into a pond.

The long and short of it?  An Accidental Affair was enough to persuade me to read the next book in this series, hoping it will be better, but I wouldn't recommend Chills on its own merits, of which there are few.  (There are a few good kissing scenes, but they are disappointingly brief and nothing steamier comes about until the very end.)

2 out of 5 stars.

Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins could not be a more apt title for this book, because that is exactly what it is: the stories of the beautiful ruins of the characters' lives.  The plot revolves around three people: Dee Moray, Pasquale Tursi, and Michael Deane.  Dee first appears as a dying actress in the tiny Italian fishing town of Portovergona, where Pasquale is attempting to build a beach and a cliffside tennis court to draw American tourists to his tiny business, the Hotel Adequate View.  Michael Deane is the man who sent her there.  The story takes place in several different forms.  There is a "past" timeline, set over the course of a few days in the sixties, which is where the original action occurs; this timeline pops up every other chapter.  The chapter which do not take place in the sixties take place in a time known as "recently," with some additional characters (Michael Deane's much-aggrieved assistant, Claire Silvers, and the would-be script writer Shane Wheeler), or in other portions of the past.  There are also chapters out of books mentioned in the main course of the story, as well as a play excerpt and Shane's movie pitch.  It may seem disjointed, at first, but it all comes together beautifully (the theme word of this review, evidently) to show what each of the characters considers important, and what has shaped them into who they are.

The writing in this book was stunning.  It was, quite honestly, pure poetry.  There were times that it could have tended to be a bit "tell"-y, but Walter's narrative voice worked all of the description and action into a tight-woven tapestry that left a vivid picture of the book's events planted firmly in my head.  The language struggle is artfully and accurately portrayed--the lack of knowledge, the inability to convey the depth of emotion one desires with an inadequate vocabulary, the span of what, indeed, can be lost in translation.  The last chapter was almost complete exposition, and I normally hate that, but again, Walter paced it in a voice that left me in tears from the wealth of built-up emotion in this book and all of its beautifully ruined characters.  All of them are seriously flawed in some way, and none of them end up where they thought they would, but they all are charming and engaging, even the slimiest of them.  Walter ties up every loose end, not leaving you hanging about anyone, and weaves all of that into the sense of a larger story that all of us are involved in.

While words are easy to find when describing something you dislike, writing about something you love is typically challenging.  That's my problem in this review.  I loved Beautiful Ruins.  That's really all there is to it.

Five stars.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Pink Slips and Glass Slippers - J. P. Hansen

Pink Slips and Glass SlippersThe more that I read free e-books, the more I realize why they're free.  While I've discovered some truly amazing (Intisar Khanani's Thorn was free when I got it, and was breathtaking) most of them just fall flat.  Pink Slips and Glass Slippers is no exception.

The plot revolves around Brooke Hart and Chase Allman, who both work at a pharmaceutical company called Pharmical.  Brooke is the vice president of what's essentially a customer support division, and Chase is CEO.  Brooke goes gaga over Chase at first sight, and he does the same for her.  After a bout of drunken sex at a hotel each is staying at--separately; Brooke for a wedding and Chase for a charity event--Brooke gets fired and the relationship-that-could've been goes up in smoke.  Meanwhile, Chase tries to deal with his missing, drug addict wife while raising a three-year-old son.

Overall, the plot, or shall I say plots, dragged.  They dragged on and on and on.  Not to mention that there was little no relation between them.  Hansen felt the need to info-dump every single detail about every single character, no matter how minor, and every single setting, no matter how superfluous.  For example, I don't need to know every detail about the North Carolina research triangle.  I don't need to know every single song every character listens to in the car.  I don't need to know the makes, models, and colors of the cars all of the characters drive.  These details don't build atmosphere, and they don't advance the plot.  Rather, they slow the narrative down with their unnecessary weight and left me nodding off when I should have been absorbed in a romance narrative.

That said, this is billed as a romance, and it's really not.  The romance is minimal.  The bulk of the book is Chase raising his son and Brooke trying to get her shit together, each of which could have been a compelling plot in a "literature" book, but not smashed together with a romance and ultimately kidnapping plot.

Hansen also doesn't have a very good grip on his characters.  First off, he apparently has no idea how old his female lead is.  He never explicitly states her age, which is fine, but his implications are all over the place.  Upon Chase's first appearance, Brooke knows he is forty-one, "yet he appeared her age--quite young to be running a multi-national company."  This sentence seems to imply that Brooke is a good deal younger than Chase is.  Yet later, when Brooke sees Chase with Oksana, who is twenty-six, Brooke is apparently old enough to be Oksana's mother.  Next, Chase is apparently a devoted father, but when his son is kidnapped he doesn't want to call the police because he's afraid of risking his job.  I'm sorry, but if you're a devoted parent and your child is kidnapped, you call the fucking police.  You don't go flying all over the country and having sex in the Cinderella Suite at Disney World while your kid is missing.  Almost all of the secondary characters are complete assholes, with little to no variety amongst them.  Another inconsistency, this time in plot: Brooke is "blackballed" from all the pharmaceutical companies in the area because she slept with Chase, but this happens before anyone else knows about it.  What?  How does that work out?  Did Chase's evil secretary travel back in time to deliver the news to everyone before she actually received it?  And another gap, this time in research: Disney World does not look or work anything like Hansen described it.  If you're going to make shit up, just use an imaginary location.  If you're going to use a real location, do your freaking research.

Also, the writing just isn't that good.  The transitions aren't smooth, but rather jump from one thing to another with no apparent connection between them.  The bulk of the book is all "tell" and no "show."  For example, when Hansen writes about Chase, he writes that "He had an alluring charisma, highlighted by piercing brown eyes with gold flecks."  What eyes are supposed to have to do with charisma, I don't know, but Chase never actually exhibits that supposed charisma.  In fact, he can't agree on anyone with anything, when a charismatic person would be able to persuade people to his side.  There is mixing metaphors.  There are an abundance of comma splices.  This reads much more like a very rough draft than a completed product.  A 336-page romance novel should take me a couple of hours to finish, if it's intriguing; this one took days.  And the weren't savory days, either.  Honestly, the only reason I finished the damn book is because I never leave books unfinished.

I have no idea why this book has so many five-star reviews and such a high rating on Goodreads.  My only thought is that the author got everyone he knows to rate it highly despite its overall poor quality.  I don't know that for a fact, of course, but it's been known to happen before, and I certainly wouldn't rule it out in a case like this.

1.5 stars out of 5.